Issues in Tissues

by Melinda Nye

"My mother wanted to divorce me." Brynn Bennett, a certified massage therapist affiliated with Fit Happens, laughs at the irony. Her plan was to alleviate stress, not induce it. (In all fairness, massage therapy hardly represented a mainstream career choice at the time.) Fortunately, in the more than twenty years since Brynn became certified, massage therapy has been widely recognized as a key component in programs geared towards improved health. In an era of aggressive sports and an aging population, hands-on treatments are accepted as indisputably beneficial. Massage is often suggested in regular programs for stress management ­ both physical and emotional.

When we think of massage, most of us think of Swedish Massage, a muscle relaxation technique developed in the1700s by Doctor Per Henrik Ling. Ling's methods were intended to keep tendons and ligaments supple by applying pressure to muscles. Swedish massage techniques (often in this order) include long strokes with the palms and fingers, kneading with the knuckles and fingers, circular friction, shaking, tapping, and stretching. Today, variations of his therapy, such as deep tissue massage, have become commonplace. For Brynn, deep tissue massage ­ and its ready application for myriad body types and needs ­ is her most popular treatment.

While massage therapists learn to address different physical problems, clients can be stubborn, locked into a mindset of who can and cannot deliver the goods. Among Brynn's more notable experiences was an introduction to gladiators with the former Meadowlands Arena Football Team. In arena football the goal appears not so much victory as annihilation; predictable aches lead to predictable needs. At the first session, Brynn ­ 5'7" and the only woman in a team of practitioners ­ had to fight a perception that she wasn't strong enough to deliver deep tissue therapy. "They were all gentlemen, actually," she recalls. "But they went for the masseurs." (A female practitioner is called a masseuse; a male practitioner is a masseur.) One giant, a 6'4" gladiator who weighed well over three hundred pounds, finally took pity on her. In much the way that jockey Julie Krone stopped skeptical horse trainers with a bone crushing handshake, Brynn went to work on the big man. "It's something to feel the power of them ­ and still make them cringe with fingertip pressure," she laughs. The gladiator was surprised, then impressed by Brynn's strength. (He delivered perhaps his greatest accolade: "I don't want to fight with you.") The word spread. The following week his teammates waited in line. Her line.

Gladiators exist at one end of a broad spectrum. Massage therapists treat a client population that includes pregnant women and octogenarians, pre-pubescent wrestlers and hyperactive five-year olds. Following their first professional massage, older people often come to view their hour on a long rubber table not as an indulgence but as a tool to improve their quality of life. Hikers, kayakers, triathletes, cyclists and wrestlers seek help to offset their sports' common injuries. Some of Brynn's youngest athletes, 7-8 year old wrestlers, get full massages. "They love the sessions," she says. Of the emotional upside, she adds, "There are so many benefits of massage that people don't realize at the time." Indeed. For such children, massage can offset the potential bad habits of aggressive body contact. For hyperactive five-year olds, Brynn offers a gentle treatment. "Children respond very easily," she says. "They're very receptive to touch. They don't get a deep tissue massage. They're a little more ticklish." The youngsters might very well become regulars. Some adult clients have sought treatments on an almost weekly basis for fifteen years.

Contemporary massage treatments have branched out in unexpected directions, from the spiritually-based approach of the New Age to the experiments of this age. The current hot thing is mineral. Literally. Practitioners of Hot Stone Therapy place smooth black basalt rocks (lava stones) on the skin, which release a deep, penetrating heat. The stones sold on are things of beauty: smooth, dark, and polished until they shine like drops of mercury. Up to 54 stones of different sizes, often shaped to fit the user's hands, are placed on different trigger points. In a typical treatment, a client might sit up while stones are placed in two lines on the massage table. Once the stones are in place, the client will lie down on the rocks, which then deliver a lovely combination of heat and gentle pressure along the spine. Other stones get placed on the forehead and between the toes. While Hot Stone Therapy is designed to increase blood flow and circulation, advocates say it is also incredibly relaxing. Even so, it can be tricky to introduce to the uninitiated, and amateurs might find few takers, particularly when they introduce the word lava. "These rocks go where?" "Um, between your toes. To start." "Lava." "It's cooled lava. Except that we heat it to 160 degrees." "Water boils at 212." At this point expect a response that is both skeptical and hopeful, and reflects a western perspective, an anatomical approach to healing. "Forget the lava. My feet are killing me. How about a regular foot massage?"

If Swedish massage is the 900 lb gorilla of physical therapy, Reiki, begun in Japan, is the ethereal butterfly. Advocates claim Reiki draws on a universal energy and life force ­ resulting in an experience that sounds like a physical and spiritual caress. Even better, they believe this "life force energy" is unlimited and accessible to everyone; tapping into this force, the unseen energy that flows through everything, will only improve health and enhance the quality of life.

Yoga West in Succasunna, offers a wonderful opportunity to investigate Reiki. I stopped by to meet Jack Sicsko, a Reiki Master. The morning seemed well suited to tap the universe's vital energy, particularly after a failure to respect a long-standing caffeine addiction. On top of missing the daily dose of java, I'd also skipped breakfast. A headache blossomed.

Inside Yoga West, Jack and Shirley Sicsko waited while I slipped my shoes off. (Shoes and coat would be the only items to remove.) Jack led the way to a massage room, giving a brief description of Reiki while we climbed the back stairs. The Reiki practitioner places his/her hands gently on ­ or over - different locations on the body, usually beginning at the head, and holds his or her hands in place for at least several minutes. The energy of the universe starts flowing, from hands to patient. "The body heals itself," he explains. I began to regret my limited time. Our session would have to be reduced to Reiki-lite.

We settle into a small tranquil room with white walls, a varnished hardwood floors, and scented candle, and a bleakly utilitarian massage table. (Appearances are deceiving; the table proved solid enough to support Dumbo, while offering the cushioned support of a featherbed.) Shirley Sicsko propped a pillow under my head and legs. Jack rubbed his hands together for warmth. I shut my eyes and sensed the movement of hands over my head. A distinct warm pressure tugged at my chest. The tugging sensation vanished. My scalp tingled. I felt very sleepy when Jack -­ in a significant departure from western massage treatments ­ asked to put his hands on my shoulders.

"Do I have permission to touch you?"

I must have nodded. Jack placed both hands on my shoulders ­ and left them there. No pulling, pounding, caressing on muscles and ligaments. A warmth eased through my shoulders and neck. He shifted his fingers. If asked, I would have claimed to feel fingerprints through an oversized sweater from The Gap. He moved his fingers one more time and stepped away. I sat up to a pleasant surprise. My headache was gone. In fact I felt quite sleepy, and mumbled something about his hands in my hair.

"I did not touch your hair." Jack smiled. "My hands were at least six inches away."

"Reiki is very powerful," Shirley explained. "It accelerates the healing process, and can be used to cure acute problems. Skilled practitioners can treat people through objects, like casts and chairs." The Sicsko's explained how chronic illnesses may take a series of treatments. Reiki treats the cause of the disease­and pain, which is often linked to emotional and spiritual states.

Mysterious yet accessible, Reiki can be taught. In fact it is not so much taught as transferred from the Reiki Master to the student. Once activated, the student retains the ability for life. Devotees swear by it as a simple, natural and safe method to align the body and spirit.

At Yoga West, an education in Reiki occurs in stages. Reiki I novices begin their education in healing with gentle physical contact. By the time students graduate from Reiki II, Jack and Shirley expect them to have become intuitive healers who can transmit a stronger energy. Reiki II students have the choice to work with or without touch. At the next stage, Reiki III students learn distance healing. The Sicsko's must have learned to shrug off skeptics. Jack and Shirley have attained a 100% conversion rate in their family: all five members are Reiki practitioners. "Any living thing can benefit from Reiki," Jack says. "Even my animals are receptive." Shirley laughs. "Except sometimes the cats. They're still cats. But the two dogs love it."

And the headache had vanished.

So what goes on in those back rooms, anyway? What can a nervous newcomer expect? Even walking into the serenity-saturated Awakening Point in Hackettstown can be mildly nerve-wracking for newbies, but the next steps are pragmatic ones. Clients fill out an intake form, which prompts a discussion of physical issues and needs: High blood pressure, varicose veins, chronic headaches, allergies, and so on? The answers will determine the session: a lighter touch, a focus on sinuses or the neck, aromatherapy versus unscented oils. Once the intake is completed, clients are led to the massage room where water gurgles from a small fountain; candlelight and soft music help set the tone. For clients who remain uncertain about stripping down to their birthday suit, there are other options, such as corporate chair massage or shiatsu. As Mary Ellen Ricks, the new owner of Awakening Point, puts it: "you're here to relax and enjoy." Relaxation and enjoyment follow naturally ­ especially on the heated (yum) massage table. Many centers offer a selection of scented oils: eucalyptus, orange, mint, etc. etc., designed to reflect our shifting moods. Clients are covered with a sheet (in the winter, make that a sheet and a terry clothe towel); the only exposed area is the part being worked on. Once set up, the work begins. Different strokes induce different effects, but the overall result is hopefully the same: an endorphin cloud that carries your stress off into the ether. No offense to the tykes, but the children, the annoying neighbor, and your whining colleagues disappear. Warm fingers work along your neck, spine, shoulders, arms, and legs: Your boss suddenly seems as substantial as Casper The Ghost.

Most sessions end with a five-to-fifteen minute opportunity to unwind. Some therapists teach stretching and breathing exercises, and tools to facilitate the healing of sore joints and muscles. At Awakening Point, clients are provided with a robe and the option to shower.

Sounds good, right? The next step is to find a masseuse or a masseur. Ads abound in the yellow pages, creating a dilemma: who is legitimate versus, to put it delicately, questionable? Therein lies the rub. Your safest bet is to seek out a health and wellness center; most have certified massage therapists on staff or working as regular freelancers. Just remember ­ there isn't one style for everyone. You might decide, after all this, that you crave a different kind of touch. (For folks seeking a less structured form of human contact, and lots of it, there are Manhattan's "cuddle parties", where touch-deprived, pj-clad strangers pay to nuzzle and hug for several hours.) But if spooning with strangers doesn't float your boat, you might join the legions of people who've discovered the solace in structured, professional massage sessions. Clients who experience the physical and emotional benefits of massage come to see it as something akin to physical therapy.

Of course treatments can't solve every problem in the physical plane. I left my Reiki-based introduction to a flowing, connected universal energy and found it wasn't transferable. I felt marvelous: both awakened and relaxed. My fuel tank, however, remained empty.

This story was first published: Spring, 2005
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